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For almost 70 years on television, Superman has entertained audiences by leaping tall buildings in a single bound and saving Lois Lane from almost every danger imaginable. The DC hero has arguably found more opportunities for success on the small screen than he has on the silver one, which may account for why his popularity endures with no sign of ever slowing down.
Superman & Lois, the CW’s latest series based on DC characters, is poised to further the Man of Steel’s already-impressive legacy. The much-anticipated show premieres this week and gives us a Superman unlike any we have seen before, as Tyler Hoechlin’s alter ego is now a husband and father trying to save the world for his children and protect them from the dangers within it.
Judging by the show’s trailers, it is one of the most expensive and ambitious Superman series ever attempted — and a welcome “what if?” scenario for both fans and the hero to explore. In time for the series’ debut, here’s a ranking of every live-action and animated show starring the Last Son of Krypton. (Since Superman & Lois is brand new, only a few episodes were available to screen and we decided it was unfair to judge/rank this show with such a limited sampling.)
15. Krypto The Superdog (2015 - 2016)
Aimed at young kids, Krypto the Superdog doesn’t offer much for their parents other than a colorful distraction.
This short-lived spin-off of Superman: The Animated Series ditches the Art Deco designs of its flagship show in favor of a more Hanna-Barbera style. The cute, superpowered dog does not lend himself to much of anything resembling the bare minimum of compelling stories — even for a kid’s show. Krypto seems to primarily exist as an excuse to parade a cute dog that can fly, which, of course, has its merits. In that front, the show succeeds.
14. Superboy (1988 - 1992)
Superboy, a low-budget syndicated series from Superman producers the Salkinds, premiered in October 1988 and overcame its production values to become a surprise ratings hit.
Like Smallville, it also centered on Clark Kent’s teenage years. Unlike Smallville, it put Clark in his blue and red suit often, with the future Superman battling the smarmy Lex Luthor (effectively played by Sherman Howard) while trying to protect and woo Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk). This series doesn't necessarily not hold up; pacing issues and cable access-level budgets hamstring the series’ potential. But the show doesn’t seem too concerned with being anything other than another take on the legendary hero. It’s perfectly content pitting Superboy — played by John Haymes Newton in Season 1, Gerard Christopher in Season 2 — against the K-Mart costume versions of Bizzaro and Metallo without breaking the bank. (The Florida-bound production doesn’t help the series' feel, either.)
Revisit this series for the nostalgia factor, and to better appreciate how far the Man of Steel has come on the small screen.
13. The New Adventures of Superman (1966)
The New Adventures of Superman is a pretty dated and stiff animated series from Filmation, which would go on to make the ultra-nostalgic 1980s He-Man animated series. This series is a collection of six-minute shorts focusing on the titular character with little fanfare or urgency; it’s an inoffensive execution of Superman that doesn't ever really take any risks. It’s just… there. Yet it did run for 68 episodes across four seasons!
12. The Adventures of Superboy (1966)
Teenager Clark Kent and his earnest pursuit of Truth, Justice, and the American Way get relegated to a series of six-minute shorts that pairs young Supes with his loyal mutt, Krypto.
Filmnation’s fluid character designs are the standouts here, as Superboy’s adventures in Smallville find him confronting everything from lava spills (in Kansas?!) to really large storm clouds that only his superpowers can break up. These episodes were often paired with The New Adventures of Superman show, and are worth checking out if you’re a die-hard Superman fan.
11. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 - 1997)
Sorry, '90s kids: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman doesn't really hold up.
Sadly, outside of the pilot, which premiered in 1995 on ABC, Lois & Clark is a mixed bag of either “just OK” episodes or truly not-great ones. File the infamous Lois and Clark wedding episode under the latter. That’s the one where the show officially “jumped the shark” when Clark realizes he’s not marrying Lois, but rather her alien clone that likes to dine on frogs. (Yup, that happened.) The show’s saving grace is, of course, the chemistry between Superman (Dean Cain) and Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher, in her star-making turn).
The first half of Season 1 starts off promising; it makes us fall in love with the lead characters in new ways that fans did not experience before in either the movies or comics. But by the midpoint, and throughout the rest of the series, that good will feels a bit squandered. For fans, the series is fondly remembered for giving Lois equal billing and footing with her Kryptonian colleague — and providing a great showcase for Hatcher’s impeccable comedic timing. Other standouts for the series include John Shea’s chilling performance as Lex Luthor, and the late Lane Smith as the irascible Perry White.
10. Krypton (2018 - 2019)
Krypton, inspired by the events depicted in the opening act of Man of Steel, was SYFY’s short-lived attempt to invest Superman’s pre-origin story with some Game of Thrones-level intrigue.
The end result was a costly but noble experiment, one that focused on Superman’s grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), struggling against a corrupt regime while combating threats that would ultimately lead to the destruction of his homeworld and the birth of Earth’s greatest hero. The impressive production values and appearances of legacy characters (Doomsday!) were not enough to ensure a long lifespan for the series, however, as it was canceled after one season.
09. Super Friends (1973 - 1985)
Arguably the most famous (or maybe infamous) animated incarnation of Superman, Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends assembles Superman and other members of the Justice League to battle Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom. Super Friends puts the JL together for simply-plotted, but action-packed, animated adventures that make for ideal, simple Saturday morning cartoon entertainment.
Running for an impressive nine seasons on ABC, Super Friends (later renamed as Challenge of the Superfriends) rolled out mostly harmless, light-hearted kiddie fare. But it famously took a dark turn with “The Fear,” a Batman-centric episode that focused on the Dark Knight’s traumatic origin in Crime Alley, which is arguably the best episode the series ever made. As engaging as Batman’s episode was, the draw week-to-week for kids was Superman. Here, his powerset was nearly boundless and fans could count on at least one superpowered fistfight or flight-based action sequence to keep them glued to the tube.
08. Superman (1988)
This short-lived cartoon, produced by Ruby-Spears Enterprises for CBS’ Saturday morning cartoon block, was created to celebrate the Man of Steel’s then-50th anniversary. Notable for its impressive character designs based on DC’s official style guide, and the flashbacks to Clark Kent growing up in Smallville that bookended episodes, this Superman series is a fan-favorite that pop-culture has all but forgotten.
This is the first Superman animated show that follows the events of John Byrne's post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot. This Superman, unlike most of his animated counterparts, is depicted as more of a tactician, strategy-oriented hero — to make him a better foil for Lex Luthor, who is depicted here, as he was in Byrne’s run, as a ruthless businessman. This dynamic leads to some very action-packed outings, most scored to a version of John Williams’ classic themes from the 1978 original movie. The animated series is also notable for comic writer Marv Wolfman’s involvement in the story process.
07. Legion of Super Heroes (2006 - 2008)
Legion of Super Heroes is one of Warner Bros. Animation’s most entertaining and underrated efforts under the DC umbrella.
Set in the 31st Century, this beautifully animated series explores a young Superman’s kick-punching adventures as a member of the eponymous peacekeeping force. The series is mostly aimed at young children, but it packs enough impressive set pieces and humor to hook in adults as well. That’s part of the show’s irresistible charm; it packs big emotional ideas and themes into kid-friendly storylines with more on their minds than most shows at this level. Legion of Super Heroes is the animated equivalent of comfort food, a show that only gets better with each viewing.
06. Adventures of Superman (1952 -1958)
The late George Reeves starred in Adventures of Superman, the black-and-white classic series that served as a gateway to the character for a generation of viewers. Reeves’ earnest portrayal of Clark Kent was balanced by his somewhat cocky screen presence whenever he put on the cape. His Superman seemed as comfortable in the red and blue outfit as Connery was in Bond’s tailored suits. It was an instantly iconic pairing of actor and role, one that has endured for fans since the 1950s.
What has not aged so well, understandably, are the special effects. The series’ flying scenes are obviously of their time, but the chemistry between leads Reeves and Noel Neill is timeless. Their charming banter and earnest depiction of their iconic roles, creating characters we can’t help but invest in, is why this legendary series is still considered a live-action benchmark for the character.
05. Justice League Action (2016)
One of the most recent shows to feature the Man of Steel is also one of the most underrated.
Justice League Action, from Cartoon Network, centers on the action-packed and comedic adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman as they occasionally lead members of the Justice League into battle against a variety of threats and supervillains. From space invaders to magical forces, Justice League Action is effortless in its inventiveness when it comes to delivering action scenes catered to its young demographic. The animation quality can’t compare with Batman: TAS, but the bright, vivid character designs stand out from the usual DC fare — as does the show’s often hilarious comedic runners, especially whenever Shazam or Cyborg make an appearance.
04. Smallville (2001 - 2011)
Like Christopher Reeve’s iconic Superman before him, Tom Welling’s take on the DC hero defined a generation.
Smallville, created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, explored young Clark Kent’s high school years growing up in a town plagued by “Freaks of the Week'' that the future Man of Steel would have to battle, with help from friends and his on-and-off again girlfriend, Lana Lane (Kirsten Kruek). Certain fashion choices and needle drops (so much Lighthouse) haven’t aged well, but Smallville more than makes up for that with the near-constant tug-of-war Clark faces between trying to live as a “normal” teen and being molded to become the world’s savior. It’s a DC take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s dilemma, with a soundtrack full of then-college radio hits and a heartfelt (if at times campy and melodramatic) tone that would set the stage for all future CW shows based on DC characters.
03. Supergirl (2015 - 2021)
Supergirl, like The Flash before it, succeeds at delivering a titular character seemingly fully formed and instantly likable from the jump — thanks in large part to the perfect casting of Melissa Benoist as Superman’s cousin. The series also introduced audiences to the first live-action Superman on the small screen since Smallville, with Tyler Hoechlin portraying with the same level of commanding presence and charm as the late Christopher Reeve once did.
Supergirl didn't technically start out as an Arrowverse series, but instead migrated over from CBS after a somewhat underwhelming first season. The series has definitely improved since jumping over to The CW, but it rarely experiences the same highs as its sibling shows.
Most of this underrated series’ woes boil down to plotting. Supergirl's early years struggled to build compelling storylines that paid off in satisfying ways. Its roster of villains also leaves a lot to be desired, though Season 3 did see some improvement on that front thanks to Odette Annable's Reign. Supergirl’s main strength is and always has been its core cast of heroes. Melissa Benoist truly embodies the Girl of Steel, and Kara's relationship with adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and father J'onn (David Harewood) gives the show all the emotional weight it could ever need. Despite launching in the shadow of the dour Man of Steel era, the series’ earnest optimism and inclusive storylines are a welcome departure. They serve as a reminder that telling Kryptonian stories from “dark” and serious places is different, but not necessarily better, than sticking with the tried and true.
02. Superman: The Animated Series (1996 - 2000)
From the same team that brought us the landmark Batman: The Animated Series comes a take on Superman that honors both the action and heart of Richard Donner’s film and the character’s comic book origins.
While not as popular ratings-wise as Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series is just as beloved, thanks to creators Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm’s approach to delivering a Man of Steel that, aesthetically, feels like he came off the pages of his Silver Age run. A standout here is the character’s more “modern” power set, one inspired by John Byrne’s interpretation. In most episodes, Superman struggles and strains to perform his life-saving or villain-busting feats. This aspect gives the Kryptonian a more vulnerable and human edge perfectly captured by voice actor Tim Daly.
The series is most famous for its splash page-worthy action set pieces and the overall Art Deco designs that pay homage to Max Fleischer’s Superman serials. The “Ocean Liner Deco” aesthetic was an inspired choice to tell Superman stories that feel timeless despite the modern techniques bringing them to life. While the series didn’t deliver as many all-timer episodes as Batman: TAS had, it did succeed at adapting compelling and nuanced versions of classic Superman stories as “The Last Son of Krypton” and “World’s Finest.” And like Batman: TAS, Superman: The Animated Series only gets better with age.
01. Justice League / Justice League Unlimited (2001 - 2004, 2004 - 2006)
Cartoon Network’s ambitious Justice League picked up where Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series left off, furthering the adventures of DC’s popular heroes in a team-up fans had been waiting for since Batman: TAS premiered.
Justice League featured an eye-catching CG opening titles sequence that transitioned viewers into a mix of Batman and Superman’s Art Deco aesthetics, as Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkman took on some of DC Comics’ biggest threats and iconic storylines. (The awesome adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “For the Man Who Has Everything” is as faithful to the source material as it is gripping.)
It took some time for the show to nail down what type of Superman they wanted to use. In Justice League Season 1, the character came off more stiff than what fans of Superman: TAS were accustomed to. But in subsequent seasons, the character loosened up and found himself pushed outside his comfort zone and into darker storylines. By the end of Justice League Unlimited’s run, we get Supes vs. Darkseid — complete with the now-classic “world of cardboard” speech — which unleashes a Superman who can finally punch with all his might.
Justice League, and later the rebranded Justice League Unlimited, with its even deeper bench of heroes (The Question!), earned the right to take bigger creative swings and essentially tackle the type of ensemble storytelling in animation that Marvel Studios has been doing in live-action. These shows are not just one of the best depictions of Superman ever told, they are among the greatest animated series ever made.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.